JERUSALEM Palestinians and human rights activists dubbed it the "apartheid road." Many Israeli drivers simply called the Palestinian-free route to Jerusalem safe.
Israel's Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday that Highway 443, which cuts through the occupied West Bank and links Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, must be open to Palestinian traffic banned since 2002 by the military after attacks on Israeli vehicles.
It gave the army five months to formulate new security arrangements for the four-lane road and said the prohibition on Palestinian use would remain in effect until then.
"Freedom of movement is a basic human right and every effort must be made to implement it in territory held by Israel," Chief Justice Dorit Beinisch said in a ruling in favor of Palestinian villages, located along the highway, that brought the suit.
The decision stirred public debate on Wednesday in Israel and could set a precedent for other legal challenges of Israeli restrictions on Palestinian movement in the West Bank, territory captured in a 1967 war.
Five Israelis were killed in attacks on the road before the ban was imposed seven years ago. The army placed barriers that blocked access to Highway 443 from adjoining villages and forced Palestinians to take time-consuming, circuitous routes to reach the nearby city of Ramallah.
The attacks largely stopped and the route, now used by 40,000 Israeli vehicles a day, became a popular alternative to the often-clogged main Tel Aviv-Jerusalem Highway 1.
"They've been strangling us," said a Palestinian taxi driver, parked behind an Israeli barrier blocking entry to Highway 443 from a Palestinian village.
Israeli drivers voiced their displeasure at the court's decision, speaking to a Reuters reporter as they drove slowly through a military checkpoint along 443 where soldiers peer into cars looking for Palestinians.
"(The judges) were not considering why those blocks were made -- and this is security only, okay? No apartheid, no racism, no inequality," said one motorist, who gave his name only as Ishai.
(Editing by Philippa Fletcher)